Symphony in Bald Sharp: Classical Composers with Hair Loss




Hollywood doesn’t churn out many biopics of classic composers nowadays, but the image of the concerto writer created in the 1930s and 1940s is still with us: a tortured genius with a furrowed brow and an incredibly long, flowing mane of hair. But the truth is there are as many classical masters who break that mold as fit it.

Sure, of the “3 Bs,” Ludwig van Beethoven was a seriously hairy dude, but Johannes Brahms clearly had a receding hairline in later life and Johann Sebastian Bach’s extremely high forehead makes one question just what was under the ubiquitous 18th-century wig (other than a brain that housed sheer musical genius).

Those darn wigs, as well as the paucity of photographs before the late 19th century, make it difficult to discern whether many of the giants of classical music were bald. Franz Schubert definitely was, at least for a period: The treatment he received for syphilis left him bald for more than a year, and it does appear that he developed a very high forehead afterward. Schubert was incredibly prolific in his scant 31 years; he’s credited not only with 9 symphonies (including the majestic Unfinished Symphony) but also with several operas and other stage works, 36 liturgical pieces, 21 sonatas and about 600 lieder.

The wig situation also makes it hard to guess about Antonio Vivaldi. Early in life he was nicknamed “The Red Priest” because his hair was a dazzling auburn. But portraits again show an exceedingly high forehead leading to his wig. Was it shaved (as was not uncommon), or was he losing his hair as he composed his 500 concertos, including the bold and unforgettable The Four Seasons? And the same question applies to George Frideric Handel, inventor of the English oratorio and creator of the immortal Messiah.

Bald classical composers come from all over

When we move into the late 19th century onward, the more widespread use of photography (and the disappearance of decorative wigs) makes it easier to find balding brethren of the concert hall.

Or of the “koh?ept” hall, as they might say in Russia, birthplace of bald music makers such as Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev. The unforgettable compositions these men created poured forth from domes that eventually featured more skin than hair. Where would the world of ballet be without Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and The Nutcracker? How would the concert hall have been different without the riots provoked by Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring? How many children have been surprisingly captivated by Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf?

The Russians by no means have a corner on hairless harmonists. The Austro-German area is represented by the likes of Anton Bruckner, Richard Strauss, Felix Mendelssohn (possessor of an impressively high forehead), Gustav Mahler (also high foreheaded), Arnold Schoenberg and Paul Hindemith.

Bela Bartók represents Hungary on our list, although it could be argued that Franz Liszt also deserves a place here; his hair was thick and luxurious, but his forehead was on the high side. Bartok may not have The Hungarian Rhapsodies or the creation of the symphonic poem to his credit, but he was one of the founders of ethnomusicology, and his six-string quartets, Cantata Profana and Concerto for Orchestra proudly stand among the finest works created during the 20th century.

The Finns (Jean Sibelius, Finlandia and the seven symphonies) and the French (Erik Satie, Gymnopedies; Camille Saint-Saëns, The Carnival of the Animals) are not to be dismissed either, and France’s neighbor, Spain, can proudly add Manuel de Falla (El Amor Brujo) to this list.

America has its hair-free classical heroes, too

And what of America? Well, putting aside some of the above-named composers who immigrated to the United States later in their careers, there are such “homegrown” names as Virgil Thomson, Roger Sessions, Charles Ives and Aaron Copland. American classical composers don’t tend to get the same respect as their European counterparts, but that’s a pretty impressive list. Thomson was a Pulitzer winner for his work and a mentor to such composers as Leonard Bernstein and Ned Rorem. Sessions’ work possesses beautiful melodies that are technically quite challenging and includes nine impressive symphonies and a number of distinguished works for piano or chamber orchestra. Ives, of course, was a great experimenter and one of the finest modernist composers the world has produced. And Copland can fairly be termed the father of American classical music, not because he was the first but because his music has largely defined the very character of America in terms of music; Appalachian Spring and Fanfare for the Common Manpositively overflow with New World character.

For many years, classical music was called “long hair” music. Based on the above, it would seem that is definitely a misnomer!